The Lay of the Love and Death of Christoph Cornet Rilke
by Rainer Maria Rilke
Grey Wolf Press 1985
Out of Print
This little prose-poem about a young soldier in the Austro-Turkish war of the early 1660’s was written during a single night in 1899, when Rilke was twenty-three. It had a modest success when it first came out. But when it was republished in 1912, in a more popular format, it took Germany by storm, much to the author’s amazement. The first edition was sold out within weeks; there was one new printing after another; soldiers on the front lines during the World War I carried the book in their knapsacks, along with, possibly, the Bible. By 1920 it had sold 200,000 copies — an astounding figure for that time — and by the late ’50’s over a million. An intensely romantic meditation on the nature of masculinity, it is the book by which, among German readers, Rilke was primarily known and loved.
The complete Stephen Mitchell translation of this book is available below. All rights reserved.
Read Complete Translation
The Lay of the Love and Death of Chrisoph Cornet Rilke
On the 24th of November, 1663, Otto von Rilke / of Langenau-Gramitz / and Ziegra / was invested at Linda with that portion of the estate of Linda left by his brother Christoph, who had fallen in battle in Hungary; he was, however, required to sign a deed of reversion / according to which the investiture would be null and void / in the event that his brother Christoph (who, according to the death certificate presented, had died as a Cornet in Baron von Pirovano’s Company of the Imperial Austrian Heyster Cavalry Regiment) should return…”
Riding, riding, riding, through the day, through the night, through the day.
Riding, riding, riding.
And the heart has become so tired, and the longing so vast. There are no longer any hills; hardly a tree. Nothing dares to rise up. Alien huts squat, thirsting, beside muddy wells. Nowhere a tower. And always the same scene. One has two eyes too many. Only when it is dark do we sometimes think we know the way. Are we doubling back every night, over the ground we won with so much effort under the alien sun? Perhaps. The sun is heavy, as it is in our country in the depth of summer. But it was summer when we said our farewells. For a long time the women’s dresses sparkled out of the green. And we have been riding a long time now. So it must be autumn. At least there, where sorrowful women think of us.
Von Langenau moves in his saddle and says, “Monsieur le Marquis… ”
His neighbor, the elegant little Frenchman, has been talking and laughing for three days. Now he is exhausted. He is like a sleepy child. Dust has settled on his elegant white lace collar; he doesn’t notice it. Slowly he is wilting in his velvet saddle.
But von Langenau smiles and says, “You have strange eyes, Monsieur le Marquis. Surely you must look like your mother… ”
Whereupon the little Frenchman blossoms again and dusts off his collar and is like new.
Someone is talking about his mother. A German, apparently. Slowly and distinctly he sets forth his words. Like a girl arranging flowers, who pensively tries one flower, then another, without knowing what kind of whole they will form – : so he places his words. For joy? For sorrow? Everyone is listening. Even the spitting stops. For they are all gentlemen, who know what is proper. And anyone in the crowd who doesn’t speak German, all at once understands it, can feel particular words: “one evening…” “was little…”
Now they are all intimately related, these gentlemen who come from France and from Burgundy, from the Netherlands, from Carinthia’s valleys, from the castles of Bohemia and from the Emperor Leopold. For the story that this one is telling, they too have experienced; and in just the same way. As if there were only one mother…
And so they ride into the evening, into any evening. They are silent again, but they carry the luminous words with them. The Marquis takes off his helmet. His dark hair is soft, and when he leans over, it curls on his neck like a woman’s. Now von Langenau too sees: far away something rises into the radiance, something slender, dark. A solitary pillar, half destroyed. And later, long after they have passed, it occurs to him that it was a Madonna.
Watchfire. They sit around it and wait. Wait for someone to sing. But they are all so tired. The red light is heavy. It lies on the dusty boots. It crawls up to the knees, stares into the folded hands. It has no wings. The faces are dark. Yet, for a few moments, the eyes of the little Frenchman shine with their own light. He has kissed a small rose, and now it may again wither upon his breast. Von Langenau has seen it, because he cannot sleep. He thinks: No one has given me a rose; no one.
Then he sings. It is an old sorrowful song, which the girls of his country sing in the fields, in autumn, when the harvest is drawing to an end.
The little Marquis says, “You are very young, Sir?” And von Langenau, in sorrow partly and partly in defiance: “Eighteen.” Then they are silent.
Later the Frenchman asks, “Do you too have a fiancee at home, Monsieur le Junker?”
“You?” von Langenau retorts.
“She is blonde like you.”
And again they are silent, until the German cries out, “Then why the devil are you sitting here in the saddle, riding through this godforsaken country to meet the Turkish dogs?”
The Marquis smiles. “So that I can return.”
And suddenly von Langenau feels sad. He thinks of a blonde girl with whom he used to play. Wild games. And he would like to be home, just for a moment, only long enough to say the words: “Magdalena – forgive me for always being like that.”
Like…what? thinks the young officer. – And they are far away.
One day, in the morning, a rider appears, and then a second, four, ten. All in iron, huge. Then a thousand behind them: the army.
They must part.
“Safe homecoming, Monsieur le Marquis. – ”
“May the Virgin guard you, Monsieur le Junker.”
And they cannot leave. They are friends all at once, brothers. Have more to confide to each other; for each already knows so much about the other. They linger. And around them, haste and hoofbeats. Then the Marquis pulls off his large right glove. He takes out the little rose, plucks one petal from it. As if he were in church, breaking a Host.
“This will protect you. Farewell.”
Von Langenau is amazed. For a long time he gazes after the Frenchman. Then he slips the foreign petal under his tunic. And it drifts up and down on the waves of his heart. Buglecall. He rides to the army, von Langenau. He smiles sadly: he is being protected by a foreign woman.
A day through the baggage train. Curses, colors, laughter – : the countryside is brilliant with them. Bright-colored boys come running. Scuffles and shouts. Wenches come, with crimson hats in their streaming hair. Beckoning. Soldiers come, black-armored as the wandering night. Grab the wenches so hotly that their dresses rip. Press them against the drum’s edge. And from the wilder resistance of passionate hands the drums are awakened, as in a dream they are rumbling, rumbling – . And in the evening they hold out lanterns to him, strange ones: wine, sparkling in iron helmets. Wine? Or blood? – Who can tell the difference?
At last in front of Count Spork. He stands towering beside his white horse. His long hair gleams like iron.
Von Langenau has not asked. He recognizes the General, leaps from his horse, and bows in a cloud of dust. He brings a letter recommending him to the Count. But the Count orders, “Read me the scrawl.” And his lips have not moved. He doesn’t need them for that; they’re all right for cursing. Anything more, his right hand speaks. Period. And you can see that it’s true. The young officer has long ago finished reading. Now he doesn’t know where he is. Spork stands in front of everything. Even the sky has vanished. Then the great General Spork says,
And that is much.
The company is quartered on the far side of the Raab. Von Langenau rides toward it, alone. Level countryside. Evening. The pommel on his saddlebow gleams through the dust. And then the moon rises. He sees that from his hands.
But something screams at him,
shatters his dreams.
It isn’t an owl. Dear God:
the only tree screams
in the darkening air:
And as he looks, he sees something uncurl:
the body of a girl,
bloody and bare, against the tree,
screaming: Set me free!
And he leaps off his horse in the darkened air
and cuts the ropes on her breast and white
and he sees her eyes glare
and her teeth bite.
Is she laughing?
He shudders, stands,
and suddenly leaps to his horse
and gallops through the night. Blood-stained
ropes clutched tight in his hands.
Von Langenau is writing a letter, deep in thought. Slowly he draws the large, solemn, upright characters:
be proud: I carry the flag,
don’t worry: I carry the flag,
love me: I carry the flag – “
Then he puts the letter inside his tunic, in the most secret place, next to the rose petal. And thinks: it will soon smell of roses. And thinks: perhaps someone will find it someday…And thinks:…for the foe is near.
They ride over a slain peasant. His eyes are wide open and something is mirrored in them; not the sky. Later, dogs howl. So a village is coming, at last. And above the huts a castle stonily rises. Wide, the bridge reaches toward them. Large, the gate looms up before them. High, the trumpet welcomes them in. Listen: rumbling, clattering, the barking of dogs! Whinnying in the courtyard, hoofbeats and shouts.
Rest! To be a guest for once. Not always to entertain your own wishes with wretched fare. Not always to grasp at things like a foe; for once to let everything come and go, and to know: whatever happens is good. Even the bravest man should, for once, stretch out his feet, and relax at the edge of a silken sheet. Not always to ride on a dusty path. For once to let your hair fall untied and to leave your collar open wide and to sit in a silken chair, and know to the very roots of your hair the pleasure of having taken a bath. And again to learn that women are real. How the white ones move, how the blue ones feel; what soft hands they have, how their laughter sings when the blond boy brings the lovely dishes heavy with fruit.
It began as a meal. And became a feast, a festival – they hardly know how. The high flames flare, the voices whirr, wild songs stir from glitter and glance, and at last from the ripened rhythms in the air: arises the dance. And it sweeps them all up. You feel the wavebeats pounding through the room, you touch somebody, breathe-in her perfume, you part from her and find her once again, and then, through all the light-filled melodies, dazzled, you sway upon the summer breeze which fills the dresses that warm women wear.
From dark wine and the thousand roses there the hour rushes into the dream of night.
And someone stands amazed amid the light. He cannot quite convince himself that he’s awake, he cannot make himself believe it’s not a dream, with so much splendor and luxury arrayed, and lovely women there, whose slightest gesture is like a deep fold falling in brocade. They build up hours out of silver speech, and sometimes they will lift their hands up: so – ; you think that somewhere far beyond your reach they’re plucking roses which you’ll never know. And then you dream: that you’re caressed by their soft hands, that you are blessed in them, and that a wreath is placed upon your brow, which now is bare.
Someone, who is wearing white silk, now knows that he cannot wake up; for he is awake. and bewildered by reality. And so he flees terrified into the dream and stands in the park, alone in the black park. And the festival is far off. And the light is a lie. And the night is near around him and cool. And he asks a woman who bends toward him,
”Are you the night?”
And then he is ashamed of his white suit and white cloak.
And wishes he were far away and alone and in armor.
In full armor.
Have you forgotten that you are my Page for this day? Would you leave me? Where are you going? Your white cloak gives me the right to command you. – ”
✷ ✷ ✷
”Are you longing for your rough uniform?”
✷ ✷ ✷
”Are you shivering? – Do you feel homesick?”
The Countess smiles.
No. But that is only because childhood has fallen from his shoulders, that soft dark cloak. Who has taken it away? “You?” he asks in a voice that he has never heard before. “You!”
And now he has nothing on. And he is naked as a saint. Slender and shining.
Slowly the lights in the castle go off. They are all heavy: with fatigue, or love, or wine. After so many long empty nights in camp: beds. Wide oaken beds. You can pray differently there than in the wretched furrow of a field, which, as you fall asleep, becomes like a grave.
“Lord, as you wish!”
Prayers are shorter in a bed.
But more heartfelt.
The tower room is dark.
But they light up each other’s faces with their smiles. They grope their way forward like blind people and find each other like a door. Almost like children who are terrified of the night, they cling to each other. And yet they are not afraid. There is nothing that could be against them: no yesterday, no tomorrow; for time has fallen away. And they are blossoming out of its ruins.
He doesn’t ask, “Your husband?”
She doesn’t ask, “Your name?”
They have come together so that they can be for each other a new generation.
They will give each other a hundred new names and will take them all off again, gently, as you would take off an earring.
Over a chair in the antechamber von Langenau’s tunic, bandolier, and coat hang. His gloves lie on the floor. His flag stands steeply, leaning on the window’s crossbar. It is black and slender. Outside, a storm gallops across the sky and cuts the night into pieces, white and black. The moonlight passes by like a long lightning flash, and the unmoving flag casts restless shadows. It is dreaming.
Was a window open? Is the storm in the house? Who is slamming the doors? Who is running through the hallways? – It doesn’t matter. Whoever he is, he won’t find his way into the tower room. As if behind a hundred doors is this vast sleep, which two people are having in common; as much in common as one mother or one death.
Is it morning already? What sun is rising? How huge the sun is. Are those birds? Their voices are everywhere.
All is bright, but it is not day.
All is loud, but not with birdsong.
It is the rafters that glow. It is the windows that scream. And, red, they scream into the foe, who stand outside in the flickering land, scream: Fire!
And with shattered sleep in their faces, they all press forward, half iron, half bare, from room to room, from stair to stair, and make for the door.
And the bugles in the courtyard, with muffled breath, stammer their alarms:
To arms, to arms!
And trembling drums.
But where can the flag be? It is not there.
Furious horses, screaming, prayer,
Iron against iron, signals, commands;
And once more: Cornet!
And the cavalry thunders, the bugles blare.
✷ ✷ ✷
But where can the flag be? It is not there.
Through the blazing halls he is running a race, through doors that greet him with fiery embrace, down stairways that rise up and sear his face, he bursts forth into the raging night. And in his arms he carries the flag like a pale woman who has fainted in fright. And he finds a horse, and is off like a cry: over everything there, passing everyone by, even his comrades. And then the flag awakens, serene, and never was she so like a queen; and now they can see her, far in the van, and see the shining, helmetless man, and see the flag…
But all at once she begins to glow, flings herself forward, is huge and red…
✷ ✷ ✷
Their flag is on fire, in the midst of the foe, and they gallop to save her.
Von Langenau is deep inside the foe, but all alone. Terror has formed a space around him, and he stands, in the middle, under his flag as, slowly, it burns out.
Slowly, almost meditatively, he looks around.
There is much that is alien, bright-colored, in front of him. Gardens, he thinks, and he smiles. But then he feels eyes staring at him and he sees men and realizes that they are the heathen dogs – : and flings his horse into their midst.
But, as they close in behind him, they are gardens again, and the sixteen curved sabres that leap up at him, flash after flash, are a festival.
A laughing fountain.
The tunic was burned in the castle, with the letter and the rose petal of a foreign woman. –
The next spring (it arrived sad and cold) a courier from the Baron von Pirovano rode slowly into Langenau.
There he saw an old woman cry.
This little book was written during a single autumn night in 1899, when Rilke was twenty-three. Several weeks before, looking through some old family documents, he had discovered a few passages about his kinsman Christoph, who died in the Austro-Turkish war of the early 1660s. The figure of the young soldier must have made a deep impression on him, and must have been a focal point over the following weeks for the dark emotions Rilke had felt during his childhood and through the harrowing years at military school: fears about his courage and masculinity, longing for the freedom and worldly grace of the upper classes, the suspicion that in his parents’ eyes he lacked all the qualities that made Christoph so compellingly attractive.
Finally, as with most of Rilke’s works, the release came in one burst of power. “There was a full moon that night,” a friend later reported him as saying, “and the wind kept chasing the long narrow clouds like dark ribbons across the bright disk in the sky. I was standing at the window, looking out as the clouds flew past, and in their rhythm I seemed to hear the first words of the poem: ‘Riding, riding, riding… ‘ I found myself whispering them almost unconsciously. And then I began to write, as in a dream. I wrote all through the night. By dawn the Cornet was finished.”
Seven years later, when the book was first published, Rilke had come to feel that “it is a boyish work, and requires much indulgence.” But books have their own fate and, for a writer, both success and failure are exquisite lessons in the yoga of action, demonstrating that one’s business is only with the task at hand, not with its results. When the Cornet was republished in 1912, in a more popular format, it took Germany by storm. The first edition sold out within weeks; there was one new printing after another; postal clerks sighed with rapture when they noticed Rilke’s name on a package; soldiers on the front lines during the War carried the Cornet in their knapsacks, along with, possibly, the Bible. By 1920 it had sold 200,000 copies – an astounding figure for that time; by the late ’50s it had sold over a million. And Rilke, perhaps the greatest poet of this century, the poet who in 1922 was granted the supreme achievements of the Duino Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus, found himself primarily known and loved for a minor work of his youth. All things considered, he was quite temperate, even kind, in his later assessment of the Cornet: “I never saw in these rapidly written pages any virtue other than a naïve, youthful vivacity; but it seems that that youthful quality was enough to endow the poem’s rhythms with an enduring attraction for a very considerable audience.”
For me, the pleasure of reading this small novel (or poem, or series of prose-poems: it really has created a category of its own) is largely a pleasure in surfaces. The short, clear sentences are intensely visual. Each object lights up in the clarity of the narration: the women’s dresses sparkling out of the green, the dust on the Marquis’ white lace collar, the watchfire that crawls heavily up to the young men’s knees, the black-armored soldiers pressing against the girls with the crimson hats, the single response given and accepted. The consciousness behind these scenes does not have the depth and maturity of the later Rilke. But it is filled with an enheartening sensuality:
And again to learn that women are real. How the
white ones move, how the blue ones feel; what soft
hands they have, how their laughter sings when
the blond boy brings the lovely dishes heavy with
And has, at times, a delicacy of perception that we can deeply appreciate:
They [the lovers] will give each other a hundred
new names and will take them all off again, gently,
as you would take off an earring.
The story itself is an adolescent fantasy, a tale of initiation into the adult male mysteries of physical danger and sex. Love and death. It is all Romantic in the extreme. Perhaps the distance provided by the seventeenth-century costumes and the exotic Hungarian landscape were what allowed the young poet to touch emotions that we immediately recognize as genuine. Fear for example. And the bewildered attraction of a very young man to the alien, magical presences of women. The figure of the Countess probably appears in every adolescent’s dreams, if not in his waking fantasies: the older, experienced, totally receptive sexual partner who, with the greatest tenderness, and a thrilling Œidipal charm, leads him over the threshold into manhood. After such an initiation, what further experience would not fade into the light of common day? And so all that remains for the hero is to die heroically, defending the flag, cut down amid the flames by the scimitars of the infidel Turks.
It is absurd; but touching. And yet, as I was translating the Cornet, I experienced something besides aesthetic delight. For there is a way in which this small book invites us to participate in an ancient human experience: the pleasure of war. We can feel the thick aura of male fellowship, the shared fatigue and dionysiac release, the bonding around the campfire. We are aware of the imminence of death, which informs the slightest daily act with a luminous poignance. Perhaps wars have occurred not only from breakdowns in communication, or from the purely aggressive instinct, but because they were the only way we knew of reaching a certain state of heightened awareness. “Depend upon it, Sir,” Dr. Johnson said in a different context, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
After World War I, the romantic experience of war has not been available to us with quite the same deadly innocence. And given the generous, all-embracing nature of the nuclear bomb, it would be more difficult now (at least in Europe and America) for males to have this particular way of acting out their longing for the Eternal Now. What was once only too real is now, we may hope, just an imaginative possibility. We can accept it for what it is, enjoy it, include it within the realm of our sympathies, then let it go serenely, without judgment.
– Stephen Mitchell